Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Remember Aylan Kurdi?

Remember this from nearly a year ago?

Who the fuck cares, right?  I mean, given the more important and urgent issues like how a man's fingers tell us about the size of his penis!  Especially when that was a Muslim male child, who would have only grown up to be a terrorist, right?  We are seriously fucked up in our understanding of what it means to be human! :(

That kid had a name.  Aylan Kurdi.  He had a family who loved and cherished him.  His father, who managed to survive, remembers and laments:
Aylan Kurdi's father has said his son and family "died for nothing" after a string of boat disasters in the Mediterranean that have put 2016 on course to be the deadliest ever year for refugees.
The father continues:
“Refugee children continue to drown every day, the war in Syria has not stopped,” he told Italy's La Repubblica newspaper.
“I see countries who build walls and others that do not want to accept us. My Aylan died for nothing, little has changed.”
I never would have imagined that I would live through a time when the entire world simply stood and watched a humanitarian disaster unfold before our eyes--in real time, thanks to the global electronic coverage.  It is depressing to think about how we simply do not care a shit about this tragedy.

You think yet another photograph of yet another dead child will make any damn difference?


We won't care about the death of this child, too.  We will run marathons, watch ball games, and spend gazillions on entertainment of every possible kind.  Hey, it is a free market where people exercise their preferences.  Our preferences clearly reveal that we don't care a shit when people struggle for their very existence.  Especially the brown people.
The unidentified child died in one of the three big tragedies involving migrant boats last week that left more than 700 people dead, coinciding with an increasing number of people who are attempting the perilous crossing to Europe as the weather improves.
It will be a long summer of tragedies.  Yawn!

Monday, May 30, 2016

Real men are never afraid of sex!

Back in the old country, we boys and girls operated in gender-segregated worlds.  The school was coeducational, but boys and girls dared not to speak with each other.  It was not until the reunion thirty years later that we were able to even understand how much of a missed opportunity it was to get to know fellow-classmates for the wonderful (or, in some cases, the unpleasant) humans we were and are.

I suppose that segregation was nothing but a reflection of the traditional fear of sex.  And that fear of sex meant that the lives of girls were a lot more tightly circumscribed compared to the relative freedom that we boys had.  Even in the most enjoyable parts of childhood that had nothing to do with sex--like bicycling around or playing outside even after sundown--we boys were freer than girls.

College life was no different--men and women kept to their own kind.  It did not mean that the men ignored the testosterone that was rushing through their bodies.  After all, biology is biology.

At least all those were decades ago.  That was a world before the internet.  We didn't really have an idea of how young men and women in different parts of the world dealt with their biological triggers.  Now, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle.  Which is why a report like this, from another part of the world, seems so bizarre to me:
More than 30 college students were arrested, interrogated and within 24 hours were each given 99 lashes for attending a graduation party that included men and women, Iran’s judiciary has announced.

College graduates got together to celebrate and to party, which then resulted in 99 lashes each?  That is 99 lashes more than what they deserved.  How terrible!  What happened at the party?
more than 30 female and male students — the women were described as “half naked,” meaning they were not wearing Islamic coverings, scarves and long coats — were arrested while “dancing and jubilating” after the authorities received a report that a party attended both by men and women was being held in a villa on the outskirts of Qazvin.

Torquemada, er, the prosecutor, adds this:
We hope this will be a lesson for those who break Islamic norms in private places

In "private places."  Adults--college graduates.

If these college graduates wanted to live alone?  Apparently it is not a crime.  But:
In Semnan, several “polluted singles houses were cleaned” and 97 people, including 10 women, were detained.
Col. Mojtaba Ashrafi of the Semnan police told the news agency that the raids were carried out over a 48-hour period, after the authorities monitored for several weeks 58 homes in which single people were believed to be living.

I am quite prudish myself.  But, what adults do is none of my concern, as long as they don't force me to do what they want to do.  Why should it bother the bearded mullahs that college graduates might want to live alone and party with their friends?  Maybe the old men didn't ever go to coed schools!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Gesellschaft. Feldenkrais. Who knew!

An epic battle ended with the contestants declared as co-winners.  No, I am not referring to the Warriors v. Thunder, which preoccupies this couch potato.  I am referring to the recently concluded Spelling Bee:
Crowd favorite Nihar Saireddy Janga, a fifth-grader who charmed the audience and many on social media with his slight voice and knowledge of obscure words, and Jairam Hathwar, whose brother Sriram Hathwar was a co-winner in 2014, were declared this year’s champions.
The two Indian-American boys squared off against each other for more than 20 rounds
Indian-Americans winning the Spelling Bee is not anything new.  In fact, it will be news only if the champion is not an Indian-American!

I wrote about Indian-Americans and the Spelling Bee, back in 2010.  It feels wonderful to be able to look back at my own work from six years ago and present it again, especially to an audience that did not know me then ;)
Here is that essay:

It is almost a non-story anymore when an Indian- American kid wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Last Friday, for the third year in a row and the eighth time in the past 12 years, an Indian-American student won it all. This year’s champion, Anamika Veeramani, won after out-dueling another Indian-American, Shantanu Srivatsa.
The linkage between the spelling bee and Indian- Americans started back in 1985 when Balu Natarajan won the event. That “kid” is now Dr. Natarajan, a physician with a specialty in sports medicine, who notes on his Web site that “winning the ‘bee’ was definitely an important experience,” and adds that he is more proud of being a good doctor and the work he does with his patients.
Given Natarajan’s profession, and the career choices of quite of a few other past winners, it is not a surprise that this year’s champion also plans to go into medicine. Anamika wants to be a cardiovascular surgeon.
It is far more intriguing that these champion spellers do not seem to be keen on careers in English literature. It is not that these contestants lack an interest in literature, either — one, who is not even a teenager yet, lists “Gone With the Wind” as a favorite book.
Despite the rather jaded reaction to yet another Indian- American winning the bee, the champion’s first and last names caught my attention. There was a fantastic message in her first name being Anamika, a Sanskrit name that literally translates to “without a name.” Like “anonymous.”
One might wonder then why parents would name a child “anonymous.” Well, it’s because there is a much more profound and philosophical meaning behind that name. “Anamika” means that there are not enough words to describe the value, beauty and importance — the equivalent in English is when we say something like “there are no words to describe it.”
Thus, it is quite a linguistic irony that the Spelling Bee recognizes kids who are talented with words, while this year’s winner has a name that means there aren’t enough words to describe her preciousness!
The champion’s last name, Veeramani, suggested an origin in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. Tamil Nadu, or the “land of the Tamils,” is where most of India’s Tamil-speaking population is concentrated. A significant minority of neighboring Sri Lanka’s population is also Tamil.
Having been raised a Tamil, with immediate and extended families still living in Tamil Nadu, I naturally was curious about Anamika’s parents. I even checked with my father to find out whether we might know them, and was a tad disappointed at being unable to bridge the degrees of separation. But that’s understandable, given that there are an estimated 75 million Tamils worldwide.
Anamika’s parents’ names turn out to be equally cinematic of sorts. The father’s name is Alagaiya and the mother is Malar. In the Tamil language, “malar,” as a noun, means a flower. The same word also can be used as a verb to mean “to bloom.” The father’s name is derived from a Tamil word for beauty — “Alagu.”
Typically it is only in fictional worlds that someone named “flower” would marry one named “beauty” and then together they would have a child named “anonymous,” who would go on to win a championship that is all about words. Real life, yet again, is more exciting and dramatic than fiction.
The Indian-American dimension of the spelling bee is as much a story of immigration to the United States as it is a reflection of a common heritage of having been British colonies, which is the reason English is the lingua franca. America and India were once a part of the British Empire, where the sun never set.
One particular connection is quite poignant. Lord Cornwallis, who was the governor-general of British India from 1786 to 1793, previously had served the crown as an army officer during the American War of Independence. It is strange that after surrendering to George Washington and returning to England with Benedict Arnold, Cornwallis was rewarded with a powerful and influential posting in India.
To paraphrase Paul Harvey, now you know “the rest of the story” behind the non-story of yet another Indian-American winning the spelling bee.

Score this for the mashed potatoes :)

Saturday, May 28, 2016

I plead guilty!

It had been a while, a long while, since I saw her at the store.  I walked up to her counter.

"I haven't seen you around" she said. 

I smiled and nodded.  "Long time no see.  How are you?"

"Doing well, doing well" she replied.  "But, family issues ..."


"A mother who is 82, and an aunt who is 92" she added.  And then she leaned over and lowered her tone to say "mom is not all there.  Goofy."

Life is tough.  When we see somebody, we have no idea about what they might be juggling in their lives.  

"How are you?" she asked.

"Compared to what you just said, there's nothing for me to complain about" I replied.  

Meaningful interactions with people--even at the checkout counters--help me calibrate my own life.  To the people who engage with me, well, they probably have no idea how much they are helping me understand my own life and what it means to be human.  I owe all of them way more than I can ever pay.

"You off in the summer?" she asked.

She is about my age, working as a grocery store clerk, caring for two older women.  Against such a background, the summer months for which I don't get paid seems like a decadent life that Louis lived at Versailles.  I have no idea how the super-rich do not seem to have any qualms over the everyday struggles of people like her.  It is beyond my wildest imagination how they resist paying their fair share in order to help fellow-humans who are integral to the very society in which we live.  If we prick them, do they not bleed?

I deflected her question, out of guilt over my abundantly rich life.  "The term is not over yet.  Couple more weeks to go" I truthfully replied.

If only I could feel a tad less guilty when I do not even have to feel guilty!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Where do men fit in a feminizing world?

I have blogged for the longest time about shrinkage.  No, not that one, but the shrinking world for men.  I have even tagged plenty of posts with "save the males."  I have blogged and talked in plenty about how the male identity is in crisis.

Most men--old and young--simply do not know what their roles are in a rapidly changing society.  Muscle power is rarely needed anymore to bring home the tofu, er, bacon.  Lesbians don't care for men.  Education and work are all about talking and communication, from which the old-style grunting men run away.

A few years ago, my much older neighbor/friend commented, during one of our many coffee-chats, that television sitcoms portray males as grown up boys who never became real men.  The male characters in popular sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond or the King of Queens were only a little better than kids who had been potty-trained.

It is one heck of a crisis, yet fully grown boys seem to worry only about that thing!

In my classes, I have often remarked. to any student who was even half attentive, that the story of economic progress over the last two centuries--like the Great Enrichment that Deirdre McCloskey talks about--is pretty much a story of women.  The role of women, which was tightly circumscribed by men in cultures all across the world, started changing for the first time ever.  It started slowly.  And then it picked up steam.  And now, here we are, with men falling behind.

Thanks to such a worldview for a while now, I was not surprised--not even a tiny bit--to read Tyler Cowen's take that "the contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males."  And it will get worse for even more men. And this is now playing into the fascist's demagoguery:
Trump’s support is overwhelming male, his modes are extremely male, no one talks about the “Bernie sisters,” and male voters also supported the Austrian neo-Nazi party by a clear majority.
Not news to me.

What I found to be interestingly new is where Cowen goes from there:
One response would be to double down on feminizing the men, as arguably some of the Nordic countries have done.  But America may be too big and diverse for that really to stick.  Another option would be to bring back some of the older, more masculine world in a relatively harmless manner, the proverbial sop to Cerberus.  But how to do that?  That world went away for some good reasons.
If this is indeed the problem, our culture is remarkably ill-suited to talking about it.  It is hard for us to admit that “all good things” can be bad for anyone, including brutes.  It is hard to talk about what we might have to do to accommodate brutes, and that more niceness isn’t always a cure.  And it is hard to admit that history might not be so progressive after all.
What percentage of men are brutes anyway?  Let’s hope we don’t find out.
Yes, let's hope that we never, ever have to find out.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The looming dark clouds ...

There are somethings that I would way prefer that I did not ever know.  But, the cosmos couldn't care.

It was a pleasant evening when the friend and I walked up to the bridge over the river.  Spring time in the valley is simply beautiful.  But, then so is the summer.  And the fall too.  Anyway, it was a pleasant evening.  We stood looking at the river.  It just flows. Couldn't care for anything as it rushes to join the mighty ocean.

Which is when I spotted it.  A Nazi swastika etched on the bench.  Not very big.  Small or large, well, it is awful.  And, even stranger were the numbers that were fainter.  "1488."  1488?  What did that mean?

I checked with Google.  It led me to the Anti-Defamation League website:
1488 is a combination of two popular white supremacist numeric symbols. The first symbol is 14, which is shorthand for the "14 Words" slogan: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." The second is 88, which stands for "Heil Hitler" (H being the 8th letter of the alphabet). Together, the numbers form a general endorsement of white supremacy and its beliefs. As such, they are ubiquitous within the white supremacist movement
I did not need to know that.  Damn the person who had etched that on the bench!

The ADL adds this:
Some white supremacists will even price racist merchandise, such as t-shirts or compact discs, for $14.88.
How sick is that!

This graffiti is recent, I would think, because that is a spot that I frequent and I am usually observant of the places and people in my life.  My mind wants to jump to conclusions that it might have been after the visit of the hate-spewing fascist candidate for the White House; but, I have no evidence, of course.

A tad too unnerving given that only a couple of days earlier we had watched "Look Who's Back" (the  German title is "Er Ist Wieder Da")
Before shooting the dramatic film, [the director, David Wnednt] took the actor who plays Hitler all over Germany, dressed as Hitler and in character, to find out. The result is a mockumentary that makes you laugh and then it makes you feel uncomfortable that you're laughing. 
People knew that it was an actor.  Yet:
Oliver Masucci, the actor who plays Hitler, spent nearly a year traveling around Germany completely in character. He said it was a disturbing experience.
"The first thing they did was take selfies. I took about 25,0000 selfies. First [people] laughed and asked why I was dressed as Hitler," Masucci said.
He explained that he was Hitler and told them he was shooting a movie so people could tell him what they really think about today's Germany. "Then people started to talk to me. This was really awful."
Masucci says Germans told him they thought democracy wasn't working, that Germany needed another strongman, that refugees should be sent home and the unemployed should be put in labor camps.
Democracy not working. Needs a strongman. Refugees should be sent home. Sounds familiar as the hate-spewing fascist candidate's platform as well?

Meanwhile, this Slate essay argues that Trump is "the most prominent Aryan warrior of the modern age":
Trump’s vulgar, unvarnished manner of speaking and his penchant for favoring extreme measures—the very characteristics deemed unpresidential and dangerous by his critics—are seen as not only refreshing but also as essential for the rebirth of the Aryan nation-state. When Trump calls Hispanic immigrants “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” and vows to “take our country back” from those “taking our jobs” and “taking our money,” white nationalists hear Trump telling the same uncomfortable truths about the sorry state of white society they have voiced for decades. Every time he eggs followers on to forcefully confront detractors or swears to “take out the families” of terrorists, he projects a muscular approach to protecting the white republic. 
Back to the Hitler movie; the director, David Wnednt, adds:
It was just normal people who elected [the Nazis], normal people who followed orders, and normal people who could've stopped him. And that didn't happen
It starts with a swastika and 1488 etched on a bench on a bridge over a river :(  Here is to hoping that we will end it all before it even takes hold.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Build a better mousetrap, and ... wait, are you allowed to do that?

The mousetrap is a metaphor, of course.  I don't want you to think that the next gazillions are to be made from a better mousetrap ;)

One of my favorite charts is from The Economist.  Incidentally, implementing austerity measures at home, I did not renew the subscription to the magazine newspaper.  I have also canceled the cable connection, which means my favorite television channel is also gone.  Woe is me!!!

Where was I?  Yes, one of my favorite charts.  This one:

For the longest time, the world's economy was dominated by two countries--India and China.  Which is also why people from the rest of the world wanted to get to India and China.  And then things changed.  In a hurry.  Other people got rich.  And now China is also rich. India too is getting rich.  The middle class in India now leads a life that is far more luxurious than the emperor's life that Akbar's was.  How rich are we, and how fast was this transformation?
Two centuries ago, the average world income per human (in present-day prices) was about $3 a day. It had been so since we lived in caves. Now it is $33 a day—which is Brazil’s current level and the level of the U.S. in 1940. Over the past 200 years, the average real income per person—including even such present-day tragedies as Chad and North Korea—has grown by a factor of 10. It is stunning. 
Before we complicate the story with colonialism and white supremacy, we do need to wonder why the rapid rise to wealth did not happen in India or China, and why it began in Europe, right?
The answer, in a word, is “liberty.” Liberated people, it turns out, are ingenious. Slaves, serfs, subordinated women, people frozen in a hierarchy of lords or bureaucrats are not. 
How well phrased, right?  I have always been a big fan of the author of that commentary--Deirdre McCloskey.  It was in graduate school that this began when I read McCloskey's The Rhetoric of Economics.  A scholar of the highest caliber.

McCloskey continues:
By certain accidents of European politics, having nothing to do with deep European virtue, more and more Europeans were liberated. From Luther’s reformation through the Dutch revolt against Spain after 1568 and England’s turmoil in the Civil War of the 1640s, down to the American and French revolutions, Europeans came to believe that common people should be liberated to have a go. You might call it: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
We often fail to recognize and appreciate life today, like how McCloskey presents it:
Look at the magnificent plenty on the shelves of supermarkets and shopping malls. Consider the magical devices for communication and entertainment now available even to people of modest means. Do you know someone who is clinically depressed? She can find help today with a range of effective drugs, none of which were available to the billionaire Howard Hughes in his despair. Had a hip joint replaced? In 1980, the operation was crudely experimental.
It has been a magical transformation, in merely two centuries.  McCloskey is everywhere, because of a new book that is coming out.  From a commentary at Reason:
Hear again that amazing fact: In the two centuries after 1800, the goods and services made and consumed by the average person in Sweden or Taiwan rose by a factor of 30 to 100—that is, a rise of 2,900 to 9,900 percent. The Great Enrichment of the past two centuries has dwarfed any of the previous and temporary enrichments. It was caused by massively better ideas in technology and institutions. And the betterments were released for the first time by a new liberty and dignity for commoners—expressed as the ideology of European liberalism.
 It is such an enrichment that has made possible our daily complaints about the cable company, cellphone signal being weak, gluten, ... So, pause for a moment and be thankful that you live now and not two hundred years ago ;)

And, thank the freedom(s) that you have.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Of course college guarantees jobs ... for academics and administrators!

In its editorial, the Editorial Board of the NY Times has a powerful sentence, which is consistent with what I have been writing here (and in op-eds) for years:
the familiar assumption — graduate from college and prosperity will follow — has been disproved in this century.
I have been warning students about that broken relationship ... for years.  The American Dream is not a guarantee, when all over the world people are working hard to achieve their own versions of the American Dream.  But, hey, nobody listens to me :(

The editorial continues with this:
The problem is that the economy does not produce enough jobs that require college degrees. Private-sector white-collar jobs can increasingly be moved offshore and automated, while public-sector jobs that require degrees, notably teaching, have been decimated by deep layoffs and feeble hiring. Business investment and consumer spending have suffered in the busts of recent decades, and government spending has not picked up the slack, leading to chronic shortfalls in demand for goods, services and employees. One sign of the downshift is that much of the recent job growth has been in lower-paying occupations. Worse, there is little evidence of a turnaround. In the past five years, postings for jobs that do not require a college degree have steadily outpaced postings for those that do.
The result is lower-quality jobs and lower pay for college graduates. Take, for example, the roughly one-third of college graduates who spend their work lives in jobs that do not require a degree. 
I have been worrying about this forever, it seems like.  As I noted recently, quoting from my op-ed from four years ago, "I try to make students understand that any job that can be sent to a different country will be sent, and that any job that can be automated will be automated."  But, who listens to me,  right?

In fact,  in the summer of 2007, I attacked the college hype itself--the first of my op-eds along these lines was published, and the title says it all: "Does U.S. oversell college?"  To which an academic in town authored in the same paper a knee-jerk response filled with cliches about the virtues of a college degree and while attacking me.  Oh well ...  Apparently he listened to me!

Reading those sentences in the NY Times convinces that me all the more that if I, a nobody at a podunk university, have been correctly reading the tea leaves for years, then certainly the truth was right there, staring at all of us.  Either we chose to ignore it--denial--or it was one heck of a conspiracy to hide the truth that is finally coming out into the open.  "I told you so" is of no use at this point!

I do a full-disclosure of sorts in classes and when talking with students.  I tell them that earning an A in my class would not even get them a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  It will not directly lead to a job, I tell them.  But, if they paid attention to my approach, which might seem like Mr. Miyagi's "wax on, wax off" instructions to the kid who wanted to learn karate, then it will all work out, I assure them.  But then--you know what is coming now--nobody listens to me!


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Double trouble on the left

It just seemed like it would be a good day to spot a whole bunch of goslings while out on my usual five mile walk by the river.  I made sure I grabbed my phone.

Even a few years ago, to grab a phone when one needed a camera could have been a setup for a comedy routine involving an absent-minded professor.  Or, even something serious to think about like The man who mistook his wife for a hat.  Now, the phone is seemingly for everything other than to talk with somebody.  Life is surreal!

I was lost in thoughts when I heard a woman's voice saying "passing on the left."  I wondered, yet again, why people prefer this approach to warn instead of ringing a bell like we did in the old country.  Maybe bells are too loud?

I rounded the curve.  The young woman who passed me had stopped pedaling.  Her feet were planted on the ground and she was busily  looking down at her screen.  Young people and their screen-fixation!  But then it is not only the young.  The other day, when I passed a vehicle in the slow lane on the interstate, I looked to see why that car was moving a tad below the posted speed limit.  The driver looked considerably older than me and he was staring down at a screen instead of focusing on the road ahead.  Such is life in this electronic age.

The young woman's attention was on the screen as I approached her.  As I neared her, I said, "passing on the right."

She turned towards me, away from the screen, and gave me a big smile.  I nodded and continued on.

A couple of minutes later, I heard a loud female voice from behind me.  "Passing on the left."  I recognized the voice--the same young woman.  She was having fun.  As she passed me, she turned to smile at me and waved with her fingers forming a pistol shape as if to say "gotcha!"  I chuckled and waved.back.

Life in America is punctuated with such spontaneous, unscripted humor.  I don't imagine such things happening in the old country, or in Eastern Europe, or ...

I saw a tandem bike approaching.  The guy in the front looked like he was in his late teens.  Perhaps even a college student.  As they neared me, I noticed that the guy in the rear was younger.  Just as they were passing me, the guy in front yelled out "watch out, double trouble!"  I laughed and replied with a "oooooooooh!"

More humor.  No wonder the Readers Digest had that humor in daily life feature, which was one of my favorites in that magazine back when I was a kid.

A walk.
Lots of humor.
And, yes, plenty of goslings.
Life ain't bad!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

On the road again. Heck, at least once!

Every once in a while, when discussing the economic future, I ask students who are pretending to listen to me whether they would consider moving far away from Oregon.  "What if you have much better employment opportunities in North Dakota?" is my favorite way to get them to think.  I like beating up on North Dakota because back when I was a graduate student, I used to tell people, "hey, if the teaching job is in North Dakota, then that's where I will go."

Moving far away from home because of productive, gainful, and meaningful employment is not an alien concept to me.  As a young man, my father headed all the way to a remote part of India, from his roots way down in the country's peninsula, and that was back when transport was slow, and there were no phones.  From door to door--from his place to grandma's--was a five day travel.  Ten days out of a month's vacation were merely for the travel.  My grandfather would have taken up a job in Ceylon if it had not been for the elders in the family who blocked his plans.

I intentionally asked for a posting in Calcutta at the campus recruitment.  And then I came here to the other side of the planet as a 23-year old, before the Web was invented and when international calls severely dented my graduate student budget.

Even now, old high school friends are in different parts of India and around the world.  Geographic mobility has been very much a part of my life. I have even written op-eds exploring these (like this one.)    Which is why the students' responses always surprise me--most of them do not want to move far away!

I then remind them about how people immigrated from European countries, fully knowing that they might never ever be able to visit their homelands, and might never be able to even talk with any of the ones they were leaving behind.  After all, the large scale European immigration to the US was before telephones and air travel.  Yet, they moved.  And they even moved to godawful North Dakota!

In some classes, I have even joked that they--and the American youth--have become wusses compared to their grandparents and great-grandparents.

I am not the only one who thinks about all these.  For instance, here is Arthur Brooks in his column in the New York Times:
Through census data, we know that Americans are less geographically mobile today than at any point since 1948. Other scholarship suggests that the decline stretches back further. This might help explain why our country is having such a hard time getting out of its national funk.
Mobility is more than just a metaphor for getting ahead. In America, it has been a solution to economic and social barriers. If you descended from immigrants, I’m betting your ancestors didn’t come to this country for the fine cuisine. More likely they came in search of the opportunity to work hard and get ahead.
Even for those already here, migration has long been seen as a key to self-improvement.
It is not merely the economic opportunity issues.  I worry that the young increasingly shy away from taking chances. 
The mobility decline since the Great Recession has actually been the most pronounced among millennials. As the first rungs of the economic ladder became more slippery, young adults began to delay major steps into adulthood and became less likely to relocate for college or careers.

I can think of a number of reasons. Like the over-protective parenting of today where free-range kids are not possible.  The umbilical cord that continues via the constant texting and phones with the parents. The education system that has made kids into subservient and unthinking adults.  Whatever the reasons are, we need to get the young to get moving again.  

Friday, May 20, 2016

Plumbers, philosophers, and ... pundits like me ;)

I plan to send a slightly edited version of this to the editor of that other paper where I send my commentaries.  Readers outside the US, especially this impatient guy, should note that this is about the American higher education system ;)

“School teaches you only to be better at school” said a student who is graduating in June, in response to my question to the class on whether they thought they were ready for the world of employment. The other students immediately and unhesitatingly agreed with her.

In a highly entertaining and sarcastic TED talk back in 2006—way before “TED talk” became a part of the common regular vocabulary—Sir Ken Robinson noted that “you'd have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors.” The student, too, was channeling Robinson’s point. Psychology professors are keen on creating more psychology professors and biology professors want to make biologists out of students, so to speak.

I will be at least a tad happy if that student’s statement were true. I am not convinced that school is teaching students to be better at school. An increasing body of research questions the value-added over the four-plus years of undergraduate schooling.

But, even more do I worry that higher education has become a diluted and credential-chasing process that it is falling way short when it comes to preparing students for employment.

It begins when graduating high school seniors and college freshmen are bombarded about their academic majors. This is where the machinery of school teaching students to be better at school does a tremendous disservice because college is really not about the major.

The myth persists, despite all the research, that there are some academic majors that are more geared for employment than others are. That is, of course, the case if students are in professional undergraduate programs—like elementary school teaching. But, otherwise, the link between a college major and productive employment is nebulous at best—unless one wants to be a college professor.

Even the composition of the academic credits towards a college degree gives this away—for instance, while a minimum of 180 credits are required to graduate from Western Oregon University, a majority of those credits will not be in the major. Or, to rephrase it differently, if college education is only about a major, then an undergraduate experience can be easily wrapped up within a year and a half.

Preparation for productive employment is rarely about the major itself. The skills that employers repeatedly cite as important—skills like writing, thinking, researching, and more—are gained through a broad array of topics outside of one’s major, and that is what most of the undergraduate education is all about as well.

If we are truly interested in how higher education is serving the young—and, hence, the country’s future—the debate we ought to be engaged in is not about whether majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math (often grouped as STEM) is better than a geography major, or whether we need philosophers or plumbers . Instead, society—especially the faculty and administrators across Oregon’s colleges and universities—needs to carefully monitor whether students are mastering those skills that are prized by employers. Else, it will continue to be the case that the only thing that school teaches the young is to be better at school.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The fragility of beauty

I drove in silence, as I mostly do, with the road noise and the incessant chirping in my hearing-impaired ear keeping me company.

I smiled recalling my joke with the ENT doctor about the tinnitus--"I don't want the noise to bug me so much that I end up chopping my ear off like Van Gogh."  It never takes much to amuse me.  No wonder my blood pressure is so normal despite all my venting here at this blog!

A small little bird suddenly approached the vehicle from my right and started dipping down in its trajectory instead of flying up.  I didn't care about my sense of humor anymore.  I worried that only a miracle would save the bird from getting hit.  If it hit the vehicle, when I was driving at 60 mph, death was certain.

It happened.

I heard the mild  thud of the bird hitting the grill.  It then bounced off and fell on the road on my left, in the oncoming lane.  I looked in the side view mirror as I kept going--the bird was dead.

It was a solemn drive after that.

I felt awful, terribly guilty, that I was responsible for an innocent creature's death.  It was a struggle within, justifying to myself that I did not kill the bird.   How do people take aim and shoot at birds and deer and more?  How can it possibly be a sport to kill a duck that floats by quacking away at whatever?  Killing Bambi is fun?  Compared to that intentional killing, the accidental death of a small little bird is nothing?  Or is it all the same--a kill is a kill?  Guilty as charged?

The older I get, the more I seem to be affected by such happenings.  Maybe because I understand the fragility of our existence a lot more compared to when I was a young boy, or even a decade ago.

A death is perhaps the best reminder that we are alive.  It is not the coffee that reminds us, nor is it the fight with one's spouse or parent.  No delicious food makes us reflect on our existence.  But, death does.  Even the death of a small little bird.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Sex is for fun ... and a lab will be for reproduction?

My  comment at this post was tongue-in-cheek about sex being a cornerstone of most, if not all, religious beliefs.  Science and technology have continually pushed our understanding of sex and reproduction.  From preventing reproduction--thereby, rendering sex recreational--to various fertility enhancement technologies as well; the pill and the condom, on one side, and test-tube baby and womb-to-rent on the other side, have generated quite some headaches for the believers and their leaders.

As much as I have fun at the expense of believers in all these issues, I certainly empathize with their fundamental problem--the scientific and technological advancements challenge an understanding of what it means to be human.  If life--a baby--can be created in a petri-dish, then what does it mean to be human?  If materials from three "donor" parents can be assembled in a lab, and then that compound begins to grow in a womb as a baby, what does it mean to be human?  This atheist and many sincere believers struggle with that question of what it means to be human, while the vast majority--who are believers--seem to go about as if such technologies do not change a damn thing.

Everybody ought to think about that though.  Such thinking should not be outsourced to experts or--worse--to half-baked people like me.  But, most don't seem to be bothered--after all, there are a gazillion television channels to watch on top of those internet videos of cats playing piano!  While people are in a stupor with mind-dulling entertainment, there are more creepy things happening in the world of science.  Like this headline from the New York Times
Scientists Talk Privately About Creating a Synthetic Human Genome
It should have made people sit up and worry.  But, of course, this may not have even blipped through all those ballgames and viral videos!

What was that meeting about anyway?
Scientists are now contemplating the fabrication of a human genome, meaning they would use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA contained in human chromosomes.
The prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community because it might be possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.
While the project is still in the idea phase, and also involves efforts to improve DNA synthesis in general, it was discussed at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Routine news.  Yawn!  Bring on that video of a cat playing soccer!

Of course, we are a long way from creating humans in labs from chemical molecules without involving biological parents.  But, it is the trend line that should alert us.  Trends like this:
Right now, synthesizing DNA is difficult and error-prone. Existing techniques can reliably make strands that are only about 200 base pairs long, with the base pairs being the chemical units in DNA. A single gene can be hundreds or thousands of base pairs long. To synthesize one of those, multiple 200-unit segments have to be spliced together.
But the cost and capabilities are rapidly improving. Dr. Endy of Stanford, who is a co-founder of a DNA synthesis company called Gen9, said the cost of synthesizing genes has plummeted from $4 per base pair in 2003 to 3 cents now. But even at that rate, the cost for three billion letters would be $90 million. He said if costs continued to decline at the same pace, that figure could reach $100,000 in 20 years.
So, it is not that unimaginable that a breakthrough in the future would mean creating a fetus without bothering about an egg and a sperm.  A chemical kit that will be assembled.  Sex, for those humans who want it, will be recreational.  The end of sex as we know it:
The End of Sex is eye-opening about the prospects created by biomedical technology. Regardless of how we end up applying it, biotech has already transformed our view of what it means to be(come) human. ...
Yet the important question that Greely’s book raises is not so much whether his vision of near-universal “sex-free conception” will come to pass, but how we will cope with what current biological technologies make (literally) conceivable. On two occasions he confesses that, despite having studied this field for many years, he was caught unawares by suggestions of how the technologies might be used. One is “uniparenting”, whereby a person (either male or female) has both eggs and sperm made from their somatic cells and used to create a child – who would, because of the recombination of chromosomes during conception, not then be a clone in the strict sense. “The other is “multiplex parenting”, in which two people make an embryo which then in effect conceives a child through IVF with another embryo, by mixing their gametes. It would, says Greely, allow a couple to have their “child” mate with someone else without even first being born, let alone reaching puberty.” Such ideas, he concludes, are “evidence of just how wide-ranging and non-intuitive the implications of new biological technologies may be for human reproduction”. Even the experts concede that their imagination is boggled by the possibilities.
Imagine theologians trying to explain god's take on "multiplex parenting"!  

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore

Sometimes, I feel like I should grab the Bernies and the Trumpsters and shake them to get their attention.  And then I want to tell them, "enough with your pessimism and doomsday sloganeering.  The end is not anywhere near."  If only they understood how hundreds of millions around the world will gladly trade places with the Bernies and Trumpsters who are being hysterical!

Greg Easterbrook writes that somehow optimism has become uncool in the country known for its boundless optimism:
An April Gallup poll found that only 26 percent of Americans call themselves “satisfied” with “the way things are going” in the United States. It’s been this way for a while: January 2004, during the George W. Bush administration, was the last time a majority told Gallup they felt good about the nation’s course.
For a decade now!

"Objectively, the glass looks significantly more than half full," says Easterbrook with a whole bunch of evidence.  He then quotes that rich dude from Omaha:
Recently Warren Buffett said that because of the “negative drumbeat” of politics, “many Americans now believe their children will not live as well as they themselves do. That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.”
 Exactly!  I complain about many public policy issues, yes, but--as I often comment to students--this is the best time ever and the "good old days" were actually bad old days.  But, somehow, the Bernies don't get it (I have complained enough about the Trumpsters already!) and they are actually mesmerized by a candidate who proudly favors socialism!  Glenn Reynolds has a great line in his op-ed warning the Bernies not to be a sucker for socialism:
Under capitalism, rich people become powerful. But under socialism, powerful people become rich.
Reynolds adds later on:
But at least in America, becoming powerful isn’t the only way to become rich. Under socialism, you’re either powerful, or you’re poor.
He goes on to list some of those socialist experiments, including Venezuela.  In this blog, I have cried enough for Venezuela, and the horror stories keep growing in that rapidly failing state.  The story of the 14-year old described in this essay on how Venezuela is falling apart will make any decent human angry like hell.  That 14-year old, who died because of a shortage of his anti-epilepsy prescription drug, is but one story from Venezuela.

Maybe the angry Bernies should spend a week in Venezuela, and the pissed off Trumpsters should experience daily life in Russia.  That will be quite a reality check on their views of the world.

Monday, May 16, 2016

If only Faculty were Public Intellectuals

I remarked to the few students who were pretending to listen to me that engaging with the public requires a thick skin.  (It is not because of a thin skin that I do not engage with most faculty; I choose not to even wish the unprofessional professionals!)  It is relatively easy for faculty to say whatever bombastic stuff they want to expound on--when they are in class with a captive audience, or when they are at one of their committee meetings.  (As a friend joked, a committee is where they take minutes for the hours wasted!)  

It is strange, rather ironic, that tenured faculty confine themselves to such safe territories and do not dare to venture out.  Why don't they proclaim their bombastic ideas with the public?  If they truly believe, for instance, that the humanities and the social sciences have never been more important, then why don't they make the case to the world outside their safe spaces?

Rachel Toor--a tenured member of the faculty at a university here in the Pacific Northwest--writes:
We live in interesting times. Scholars in the humanities can’t afford to stop making the case that what we do matters — that art helps us to live. We need to be able to convey that to our students, especially those in STEM fields who may not have gained as much exposure to music, literature, art, or theater.
But, why to "our students"?  They are not the ones who need that message.  After all, what students think and do result from various social policies and structures that the public has established. Further, the courses that students take resulted from the curriculum that faculty designed.  Which means it is the faculty who need to be convinced about the humanities?
The timidity we find in much academic work is a product of a system that — while professing to cherish academic freedom — doesn’t foster academic bravery.
She got that part right!

Another faculty, who is on the tenure-track, writes about "dipping our toes into the role of the public intellectual."
So tell me, reader. How are you dealing with this seemingly inevitable slide toward becoming a public intellectual? What are the benefits and what are the risks of engaging with people about our work online? Share your stories below in the comments or Tweet @MeganCondis. Let’s talk about it.
Oh, please!  I have been doing this for years.  I suppose I should have written essays about my experiences at the places where these faculty have published theirs and boosted my CV!

I have been doing what I have been doing for two decades now, from even before the birthing of "www."  Harsh and negative criticism is something that I view as evidence that I am doing something alright.  As I joked with students, how many can claim to have received hate mail! ;)

I will end this post with excerpts from two recent responses from strangers, which will show that I have enough of a thick skin to engage with the public ;)

I read your article in the R-G about Elihu Yale and I have to say you’ve really gone off your nut this time. Have you had your blood sugar checked lately?
Mild, right?  Keep in mind that was merely the opener!

How about a couple of sentences from another one?

The students' jaws dropped when I read that to them.  I told them about my all-time favorite hate mail that I received; check it out yourself ;)

I, for one, am not holding my breath waiting for the tenured faculty to be brave outside the ivory tower.  As they say in the old country, வீட்டிலே புலி வெளியிலே எலி  (a tiger at home, but a mouse outside.)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The murderous insanity that began fifty years ago

I lucked out with having the radio on when this program was aired.  It was a re-broadcast of a two-decades old interview with the Chinese activist Harry Wu. He died recently at age 79.  I listened to it.  I started tearing up.  Do not read the transcript there--listen to the interview and you, too, will get emotional.

The interview ends with Wu saying this:
My parents, my brother, they are still over there and many, many of my inmates, my friends they are over there. I cannot stop thinking about them. The nightmares always come back to me. I am lucky. I survive. I want to enjoy my life in a peaceful land. I'm a very normal person. I want to be loved. I want to love. But I cannot turn back on these people, these nameless, voiceless, faceless people. Forget means betraying. I cannot do that.
Chairman Mao was one of the worst humans ever in recent memory.  He killed his own people by the millions.  He starved to death tens of millions.  And crushed the spirits of many who lived. 
Fifty years ago, on May 16, Mao Zedong unleashed an attack aimed at smashing his own Communist Party apparatus from top to bottom, having concluded that it was going capitalist. “Bombard the headquarters!” he urged the masses in a famous People’s Daily article. Millions of young zealots responded, becoming Mao’s Red Guards, his fanatical foot-soldiers. Thus began China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a period of murderous insanity that ended only with Mao’s death a decade later, in 1976. 
One of Mao's crazy plans was to "rusticate" the Chinese youth.  The "cultural revolution" features in this essay, whose author, Sheng Yun, is the only child of parents who were sent to the countryside:
Once at a family dinner, my parents were reminiscing about their time among the farmers: six or seven years in my mother’s case, around two in my father’s. I had just read The Lost Generation: The Rustication of China’s Educated Youth (1968-80) by Michel Bonnin. I interrupted: ‘You were sent to the countryside because there were too many of you in the city, and there weren’t enough jobs for you.’ I still remember the expression of shock, disappointment and hurt on their faces.
How do people not get angry at such things?  Am I the only person walking around with a great deal of corked-up anger?  Why don't people yell and scream "fuck you" at Mao's giant portrait at Tianamen Square?  Oh, yeah, that's right--they can't!

The author narrates a part of the family history:
My maternal grandfather was a literary critic and actor. In the 1930s and 1940s he went underground as a member of the Communist Party, writing in support of the cause. He had seen the corruption of the Kuomintang regime, and believed that Mao was the saviour of the Chinese people. In 1954, the famous poet Hu Feng wrote a 300,000-word letter to the Bureau of the Central Committee, describing the difficulties writers faced. Mao saw this as defiance on the part of the intellectuals, and a literary argument rapidly turned into a political purge. More than two thousand people were punished, 78 of whom were described as members of the Hu Feng Counter-Revolution Group, including my grandfather. He was sent to Jia Bian Gou (the labour camp in Wang Bing’s 2010 film, The Ditch), located in the remote province of Gansu. Jia Bian Gou, sometimes called the Chinese Gulag, was probably the worst of the labour camps for dissidents. While he was not close to Hu Feng, and had only met him a few times, he had remained an admirer. 
After 25 years in the Chinese Gulag, the grandfather returned home.  
His mother opened the door to a hump-backed, pigeon-chested old man whom she failed for a moment to recognise as the handsome young man she’d last seen in the 1950s.
Seriously, how come people aren't angrily shouting "fuck you" and defacing Mao's portrait?  Oh, yeah, that's right--they can't!  Especially when the current leader embraces Mao's radical legacy:
China’s current leader, Mr. Xi, will not stand to see Mao denigrated, even though his own father, Xi Zhongxun, one of Mao’s top lieutenants, was purged in the Cultural Revolution and a half-sister killed herself. Mr. Xi himself was one of 18 million urban youths banished to the countryside to learn from the peasants.
He has declared that it is just as unacceptable to negate Mao’s 30 years in power as it is to speak critically of the 30 years that followed under Deng. He has set side-by-side, on equal footing, a period marked by spasms of mass killing and destruction and an overwhelmingly peaceful era that saw the greatest economic progress in human history.
Xi is on a mission:
Mr. Xi’s “China Dream” depends to a large degree on silence, secrecy and propaganda about the Cultural Revolution, which traumatized some 100 million Chinese. Authorities won’t allow open discussion of that era for fear that it would discredit Mao and undermine the party’s legitimacy.
That Wall Street Journal report ends on this note:
The Cultural Revolution lives on.

How awful!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Theology defined by numbers makes an interesting religious marketplace!

To atheists, this is perhaps the best of the times.  Unless one is in Bangladesh!  By and large, there is no equivalent of a Spanish Inquisition that tortures infidels.  For another, it is immense entertainment watching the religious tie themselves into knots (re)defining what god supposedly said.

Take the case of Quakers.  Until yesterday, I had no idea that of the about 300,000 Quakers in the world, "over one-third of them live in Kenya."  This factoid, by itself, is pretty darn interesting.  But, this atheist is more interested in this:
Today, there are more Quakers in Kenya than in any other country in the world.
But it wasn’t until 2007 that a major international Quaker gathering was held in Kenya. The meeting, and the ones that ensued, weren’t without controversy. In 2012, a gathering held in Nairobi was almost canceled halfway through because of arguments between liberal and conservative Quakers over same-sex marriage.
What did god say about same-sex marriage?  What is the theology here?  The believers beat their chests on how they know what god said about this issue, or other such contemporary social issues too.  However, in the Western tradition, ever since Martin Luther opened the door for democratization of thinking, it is usually the numbers that redefine what god said.  As the numbers in favor of contraception became huge, for instance, the theological interpretations changed on whether contraceptives were allowed by god, which meant that whether sex for pleasure--as opposed to sex for procreation--was allowed by god.  Fun times here on the sidelines!

The future of Christianity is in Africa.
The Pew Research Center estimates that there will be two and a half times more Christians in Africa than Europe by 2050. Currently, the numbers are about equal.
Which is why every denomination, from Roman Catholics to Quakers, and even the Mormons, are targeting Africa.  Demography is destiny!

But, the Quakers are not the first ones to raise same-sex issues as a deep theological struggle for believers.  Earlier this year, the Anglican church suffered a rebellion.  There, too, the numbers are with Africa.  I recall one NPR segment in which a senior church leader from Nigeria complained that Europeans were imposing their colonial liberal bleiefs over them.  But then wasn't Christianity itself a result of European colonialism?

Recently, the Anglican Church held a summit in Lusaka.    The Archbishop of Canterbury writes:
There are plenty of problems, I’ll come to those in a moment, but the central news is that if God, by his Spirit, is working among us, that the future is one of hope, of purpose and of blessing in our call to fulfil the mission of God in the world.
The challenges in Lusaka flowed from issues that we have been facing for many years, especially those around human sexuality, and most recently the decision of the Episcopal Church (TEC) to change its canon on marriage in order to accept same-sex marriage in its churches. It should be noted that at the same time they also decided to make provision for those who disagreed, and no diocese could be compelled to accept this change, nor can an individual priest.
So, what exactly god said will be a negotiated truth after all!

As in any negotiation, here too some of the major disagreeing parties boycotted the summit:
There was no hiding the fact that we had great differences, nor diminishing the sorrow that some Provinces (Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda) had chosen not to attend for reasons which I fully understand.
I wonder who amongst the seven billion-plus knows what god really thinks!

Friday, May 13, 2016

The ramps to life and death

I slowly eased on to the exit ramp and was nearing the traffic light when it happened.  All of a sudden the parents with the children in tow decided to cross the road.  They rushed to the road from my left side.

"Shiiiiit." I exclaimed as I slammed the brakes.

Meanwhile, there was an SUV that was close behind me.  I worried that the driver could be distracted and will drive straight into me, and then I would be pushed forward into the jaywalking family.  I braced myself for the collision and turned the hazard lights on.

The SUV continued to come towards my vehicle and then stopped just short. Perhaps only a few inches away from the rear fender.  Phew!

I looked in front.  The family darted across.

After the last of them moved all the way to the right, I was able to finally smile at the parent geese and the goslings.

I looked at the rear-view mirror and noticed that driver's head also turned towards the geese.

This time of the year, the geese and their kids put on quite a show.  Once, I saw a big fat goose (which was my sister's favorite curse word, by the way) look both sides before crossing the road.  How do the damn birds learn these things?  Pretty soon a few of them might even begin to have meals with knives and forks with wine on the side.  I tell ya, some of these birds are way brainier than most of the politicians in this country!

But then sometimes the geese miscalculate.  They mistime their road crossings.  It is so heart-wrenching to see their remains on the road, or by the side. Which is what happened the other day as I entered the ramp to the freeway.  Two birds on the roadside, and one was practically in an upended position and stiff.  Dead for a while, I am sure.  No wonder the clean up crew was circling above.  

Life, to some extent, is simply dumb luck.

Dumb Luck
Corey Marks
The horse—its number smudged
by sweat and thumbs nuzzling

predictable exactas
stamped in black—stumbles

at the last, run too hard, run
beyond what her ankles could bear,

and the jockey, who’d driven
her ahead of the other horses

now churning past and flinging
back rings of dust, rides

her down, out of the grace
and rush of the race and into the hoof-

torn dirt, the shit and grit
and the shudder he’s lost control of...

Then another rush: people
flurry to the fallen animal, the jockey

is raised, stunned and still
he feels he’s moving—something roils

in him, around him, under him.
Words are inconsequential

as flies. Dumb luck.
The animal won’t rise.

Nearby, the winner paces,
cooling, saddled now with the reason

for the day, heavy chest
widening against his rider’s approval,

each breath ragged and expendable
and replaceable as the printed bets

that drift the grounds, skittering
between knuckles of grass

beneath the stands where people
stare, the ones who got it wrong,

used to seeing what doesn’t come,
to wagering chances bound to be

nothing, nothing, nothing
but lost. Though someone got it right

and smacks his ticket
against his palm, exactly sure

of what it bears. He looks away
as the crowd around him cranes

and gawks into the afterlife
of chance—a white truck,

a man with an open-mouthed kit.
A needle. A hurtling world

closes like a gate.

The Threepenny Review
Fall 2010

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The demagogues and faculty who shit on outsourcing to India!

The title of the post conveys my sentiments, right?  I am ticked off!
I will stop right here before I display my fluency with colorful vocabulary!!!

I will add this much: There were two triggers for this post.  One, I heard a faculty colleague ask another, "do you really want the corporations to outsource everything?"  And then, this meme that was shared on Facebook by a friend:

The following is my op-ed that was published four years ago in The Register-Guard, August 13, 2012, during the previous presidential election cycle:

The sudden populism over outsourcing reminds me of a Chinese saying that I recently came across: “If we don’t change the direction in which we are headed, we will end up where we are going.”

Twelve years ago, when I taught at California State University, Bakersfield, I assigned a class of about 35 students the task of figuring out, through rough calculations, whether Bakersfield could compete against Bangalore, India, when it came to call centers that the local leaders were pursuing as a growth strategy.

At that time, outsourcing hadn’t entered the everyday political and cultural vocabulary, and Bangalore was unknown to most in the United States — after all, Thomas Friedman had yet to publicize these through his best-seller, “The World is Flat.”

Working in teams, the students independently arrived at the same conclusion: Bangalore will beat Bakersfield any day! My hope was that most of the class would have understood through this exercise how their economic futures could become increasingly dependent on developments in other parts of the world.

Well, we have now almost ended up where we were going — economic activities that might have generated many middle income jobs in the past have migrated to other countries that are equally, or more, interested in their development. Therefore, unemployment rates in the United States do not seem to be coming down despite all our attempts. And, yes, “outsourcing” is now a part of our lexicon and for which politicians have suddenly developed a fondness.

Yet we are not talking about outsourcing in a constructive manner. Outsourcing is being used to portray China or India as bad actors, when, in reality, they are far from any real competition to us. The average Indian earns barely 5 percent of the per capita income here in the United States. The average Chinese is in a much better position than the average Indian, but the per capita income there is only a tenth of that in the United States.

India and China are not our competitors, but they are much poorer countries where people are eager to improve their economic conditions.

Outsourcing economic activities to India or China, or any number of other countries, has made possible goods and services at remarkably low prices. From T-shirts to smart phones to customer support, we would have to pay a lot more than we currently do if there were no outsourcing at all.

It is not China’s or India’s problem that we failed to change our own direction over the years when we enjoyed the abundance of goods and services at affordable prices. Obsessed by the Internet bubble, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars that followed, and then the housing bubble, we continued to keep going without even attempting to alter our course, seemingly oblivious to how the economic structures all around the world were rapidly changing.

Should we then be surprised that it has become extremely difficult to generate gainful employment that will keep alive the American Dream for the middle class?

Outsourcing enters our public discourse only when it conveniently fits into political calculations. Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards angled for votes by referring to outsourcing and offshoring when they were on the Democratic ticket for the White House in 2004. Now, both President Obama and Mitt Romney are talking about it, but for all the wrong reasons that don’t seem to reflect in any way the Harvard credentials they both have.

Obama beats up on outsourcing in order to imply that the Chinese and Indians are taking away “our” jobs, which is a highly screwed-up interpretation. And Romney doesn’t seem to recognize that outsourcing and the globalization of the economy have not translated to real economic betterment for the middle class.

Since the Great Recession, I have increased the intensity with which I try to make students understand that any job that can be sent to a different country will be sent, and that any job that can be automated will be automated. Unfortunately, a captive audience does not always mean an attentive audience.

I suppose we seem to be bent on making sure we will end up where we are going.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Donald Trump reminds me of the other celebrity politician who won

Gray Davis was a well educated man, with an undergrad from Stanford and a law degree from Columbia.  He then served in Vietnam, during some of the intense conflict years, and returned as a decorated veteran.  Davis, like John Kerry and John McCain, turned to politics after the Vietnam experience and served California in various capacities.  And then was elected as governor.  A wonderful story, right?

Except that the story did not end there.  "California erupted in an anti-government, anti-establishment convulsion unlike any ever seen" and Davis was recalled less than a year into his second term as the governor.
The October 2003 ouster of Davis, a Democrat, was a primal response to the gridlock, partisan warfare, overweening special interests and mushrooming budget deficits that made the state capital a slough of dysfunction.
You can perhaps begin to see where this post is going.  For a few years now, Washington DC has been characterized by gridlock, partisan warfare, overweening special interests and mushrooming budget deficits that made the state capital a slough of dysfunction.  Voters are pissed off.  Right?

What did Californians do?  (Not me--by then I had already moved to Oregon!)  They held a special election for Davis's replacement.  Who were they?
The spectacle — a snap election featuring a color wheel of 135 candidates, including a former child actor, a porn star and a handful of professional politicians — shook California from its usual political slumber and captivated an audience that watched from around the world.
Haven't we had quite a spectacle of candidates this time around!

The eventual winner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was not the porn star, though he could have been one!
In the interview, Schwarzenegger, then 29, acknowledged using "grass and hash, -- no hard drugs." He described participating in group sex with a group of bodybuilders and a "black girl" at Gold's Gym in Venice (Los Angeles County), saying "having chicks around is the kind of thing that breaks up the intense training. It gives you relief, and then afterward you go back to the serious stuff." 
So, with that kind of old stories, and with boastful claims of the outsider life that he led, with statements like ""I never lived my life to be a politician. I never lived my life to be the governor of California," Arnold Schwarzenegger became the governor.  What had he ever done in politics?  Nothing as an elected official. Nothing as any kind of a cabinet officer.  Nothing as a member of a regulatory body.  Schwarzenegger was a political nobody.  And he won the election.  He won as a Republican in a state where the demographics were rapidly shifting in favor of Democrats.  His celebrity status carried the day.

The voters didn't care that Schwarzenegger knew nothing about politics--they figured that he couldn't be any worse than the clowns who had paralyzed politics in the state.  Heck, even Warren Buffett came forward to be Schwarzenegger's advisor, and then promptly spoke the truth about property tax and the actor had to quickly silence the gazillionaire.  So successful he was that serious Republicans even explored loopholes in the Constitution that could allow the Austrian-American to run for the presidency.

For the most part, replace the last name of Schwarzenegger with Trump and the story sounds all too familiar now, right?

In the old country, Bengalis prided themselves on how Bengal thinks today what the country will think about only tomorrow.  California, similarly, has been a leader in political revolutions in many ways.  More than a decade later, the country is tempted to follow California's lead by electing a celebrity businessman with no political experience whatsoever.  They both have Germanic heritage as well.  I wonder if their fingers also match in size! ;)

Most read this past month